#DesiLitBiz: Community question on getting starting in literary translation

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This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


“Hello! I was wondering how one can get started in translating texts and literature from South Asian languages into English. Many countries don’t offer college or university programs that can certify one to become a South Asian translator. So how do you legitimize your work and get credible opportunities?”

~Jay Patel; Toronto, Ontario, Canada

This week’s community question is from Jay Patel in Toronto, ON, Canada and about getting started as a South Asian translator. #DesiLitBiz #Community .@DesiBooks


Jenny Bhatt: Hi Jay. Thanks for this question. First, let me commend you on even wanting to do such a thing. The world of translators from South Asian languages is rather small and we certainly need to encourage more folks to want to do this work because it’s a way of preserving, propagating, and elevating our linguistic, literary, and cultural heritage. And, having glanced through your Instagram feed, I can see that you already do a good bit of work to spotlight Gujarati culture, which is quite wonderful. Thank you.

You’re right that there aren’t too many formal higher education programs offering translation as part of their academics. Several MFA programs in the US have begun to do so (e.g. Columbia, Iowa, Boston, and a few more.) PEN America lists a bunch of these here. And here’s a more recent listing of programs that offer entirely separate translation MFAs versus rolled into a broader MFA.

However, of course, not everyone can avail of the above opportunities for various reasons: time, money, or geography. This was certainly my case. So the rest of my response below is for people like me and you.

Assuming you already know how to read and write in the language, the first thing is to strengthen these skills. For me, this meant translating short stories and sending them to good literary magazines that do publish and ask for translated works. In the early days, I faced a fair bit of rejection, of course. But I also had some kind editors give me meaningful feedback, which helped me improve my work.

Another option, which wasn’t available when I was starting out, is to find a mentor. South Asia Speaks is a relatively new literary mentorship program with some great writing and translation mentors. There is an application process on their website.

If you’re not focused solely on literary translation, there are also credible freelance translation opportunities through freelance job sites. These are usually for commercial or business organizations. I’ve done a handful of these and found that it was best to stick with well-known job boards where work requirements and compensation details were clear upfront. It’s been a while, however, since I’ve done this kind of work so I suggest checking online for the most well-known and trusted job boards.

All of the above will help toward building a translation resume to legitimize, as you ask, your skills.

If your end-goal is to get into translating entire books for publication, there is no single, straight path. Publishers do look at credentials, sure. But, more than anything, they want to see a strong proposal and sample stories or chapters from the source text. The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) has a set of handy guides, particularly this one. Generally, though, for pitching book-length translations, you need to send the proposal and sample to a literary agent, who will then decide whether to approach publishers on your behalf. There are definitely smaller, independent publishers who don’t require agents but, of these, the number that accepts translated works is pretty low.

First caveat: if you’re going to take the literary translation approach, you’ll need to check the copyright for the stories or works you’d like to translate. Either go for works that are in the public domain or reach out to the original writer or their literary heir(s) to get express, written copyright permission. Most literary magazines ask for this permission before they will accept your translation.

Second caveat: if you find that the rejection feedback you’re getting from editors (for the literary work) or clients (for the translation jobs on job boards) is about your language more than anything else, then you will probably need to brush up on your language and/or dialect skills. There are a few online organizations that teach South Asian languages to adults. However, I’ve found that the best way to improve my own grasp of the language has been to read widely and write in it consistently with a strong dictionary and thesaurus alongside. And, always: read translations done by others alongside the original texts to learn the craft.

I could write several essays on the various difficulties of translating book-length works (e.g. picking a source text that will be marketable from a publisher’s standpoint, getting appropriate copyright permission, negotiating a good deal upfront, finding a support network while doing the translation work, editing your own translation, finding your readership, marketing and promoting a translated versus a non-translated book, and more.) But I don’t want to put you off before you’ve even started your journey here.

And, despite the above, I find literary translation work personally rewarding because it makes me a better reader and writer as I wrote in September 2020 at Poets & Writers in their Craft Capsule series: ‘We Are All Translators‘.

Most of us translators come to the discipline because of our love for language, culture, a particular writer’s work; our need to inhabit a literary work in ways that only the act of translation will allow; or simply because we only find ourselves and our kind in books written in our mother tongues. Whatever the reasons drawing us to translation, what keeps us there are the myriad pleasures and challenges of weighing and playing with words to carefully transplant a story and its world from one language into another. Every translator I know has expressed how seriously they take this responsibility and how hard they work at it. Yet, despite the global attention received by a handful of literary translations from South Asia in the last few years, many translators from the region are still not recognized or compensated adequately for their painstaking work. This will only change if a) the translator community itself keeps growing and supporting each other and b) more readers embrace works in translation.

Most translators come to the discipline because of the love for language, culture, a particular writer’s work; our need to inhabit a work in ways that only translation allows; or simply bc we find ourselves & our kind in books. #DesiLitBiz .@DesiBooks

I hope the above has been helpful. I wish you all the very best in the journey ahead and hope we’ll be able to feature your translated works right here on Desi Books someday soon.


This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


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